Religious Conflict and the International Community

Opinion

Religious Conflict and the International Community

Tony Blair

17 Nov 2012

In 1999, in the midst of the Kosovan war and in the aftermath of a global financial crisis, I set out six areas I believed needed serious focus in order to build a peaceful and long-lasting global community: global finance, free trade, the UN, NATO, action on climate change and third world debt.

So much has changed in the intervening thirteen years. Technology has evolved beyond imagination, democracy has spread further and global markets have become yet more integrated. And perhaps one of the most dramatic changes is that the driving force behind globalisation is no longer governments, but people. In a planet that is now home to seven billion, never has an individual had such an opportunity to be heard, for good or for ill. A crude, amateurish video sparks waves of violent protest across the globe to which governments must respond. A 15 year old girl, shot for campaigning for the right to go to school, inspires thousands to take up the cause.

So, in this new and complex world, the six areas I talked about back in 1999 are no longer enough to deliver a sustainable global community. There are profound social challenges as well; a global community needs values that are shared.

Because it is so central to so many people's lives and the values they hold, you cannot build an understanding of common values without an understanding of religion and the religious dimension of conflict. Wherever we look and analyse, religion is a powerful, motivating, determining force shaping the world around us. Understanding faith, its followers, its trends, its structures, can be as important as understanding a nation's GDP, its business or its resources. Religious awareness is as important as gender or race awareness. For politicians, business people; or just ordinary citizens, to know about a country's faith perspective is an essential part of comprehending it.

We must make a choice: do we want societies that are open to those who have different faiths and cultures to their own traditions; or do we want, in the face of insecurity and economic crisis, to close down, to look after what some would call "our own" first and foremost?

I believe the struggle between these two viewpoints will define the 21st century as much as a struggle between political ideologies defined the 20th. If closed attitudes hold sway, the coming decades will be marred by more religious violence and oppression; if an open attitude prevails, we will be much more firmly on the path to a more peaceful and prosperous globe.

I set up my Faith Foundation to provide positive and practical ways to support this. Our higher education program, the Faith and Globalisation Initiative, has established a network of fifteen universities across the globe that trains today's and tomorrow's leaders. We are also just beginning to develop a programme of professional training, initially targeted at the diplomatic community. This course will develop skills to understand and engage with the difficult issues when globalisation and faith come face-to-face. Diplomats and foreign policy must have the opportunity to understand better the complex role religion plays in the interaction between people and nations.

Back in 1999, I argued that the concept of national interest in foreign affairs had to be more broadly defined. In today's tangled web of globalisation, that concept grows ever more nuanced and complex, and needs on-going analysis and debate. The work of the Faith Foundation supports this by bringing together three crucial elements – leadership, literacy and lives. In leadership it seeks to ensure current and future leaders are trained in understanding the role religion plays in society. In literacy it seeks to enable high school students from 19 countries to connect directly, learning together to be global citizens and to respect, not fear, difference. And in lives, we support religious communities to work together against common challenges such as malaria prevention.

Of course in some conflicts religious understanding is just the beginning of a long and painful negotiating process. Religion can sponsor sacred values and sacred rhetoric that are non-negotiable and full of moral fervour and anger. The more crowded the moral high ground, the more occupied by each side' s competing sacred values, the more difficult is the process of peace-building. Competing sacred values must not be allowed to become a zero sum game. The problem has to be re-framed, enabling them to be realised in another way. And to do that they need to be acknowledged, understood and respected. Offering some form of material compensation for a participant in such a conflict giving them up is likely to be seen as an insult to spiritual integrity. On the other hand, small symbolic acts can sometimes free up dialogue far beyond their apparent importance for those who do not understand their religious resonances.

I do not believe that the entry of religion into the world's conflicts needs to be an unmitigated disaster. The different faiths have their own unique resources for conflict prevention and resolution which can and should be deployed. But I do believe that international diplomacy today that ignores people's religious consciousness, what is sacred to them, how their spirituality makes them think about land, justice, peace and reconciliation, will amount to flying blind.

Tony Blair, Founder and Patron of The Tony Blair Faith Foundation.